Traffic signals

The pedestrian crossing at Camino del Rio and Seventh Street is going to get someone killed. Although less dangerous, the same can probably be said of the crossing at Camino and 12th.

That these crossing constitute a tragedy in the making is all the more sad in that it is wholly unnecessary. There is simply no good reason either situation should exist.

Exactly how and why Durango was designated an official test site for weird and confusing traffic signals is unclear. But that seems to be the case.

At 12th and Camino the pedestrian crossing displays a heretofore unseen combination of two solid red lights, two alternating flashing red lights or no lights at all. Why there are two lights remains unexplained, as is why the “go” signal is dark and not green. At least solid red and flashing red are recognizable as “stop” (as with a stop light) and as “stop, yield and then go” (as with a stop sign.)

The signal at Camino and Seventh, however, is just strange. And with any traffic signal, particularly one involving cars and pedestrians, confusion is dangerous.

Stop signs are octagonal, red and on the corner. They are always red and always octagonal. Drivers learn from youth, before they are even driving, how to recognize them, where to look for them and how to react. Throwing in the occasional square, blue stop sign would defeat the purpose.

So, too, does making up new and unusual signals. Exactly what message are flashing yellow lights in an unfamiliar pattern supposed to convey? Presumably it is something about caution and paying attention, but if drivers’ attention is drawn to the side of the road, are they still looking for the pedestrians that may be straight ahead?

Traffic signals are supposed to be simple and unambiguous, not confusing. But unfamiliar signals can be confusing. On June 26, an Arizona man struck a 14-year-old with his car in the crosswalk at Seventh and Camino. The driver was not issued a citation because it was unclear if the signal had been activated, and there was evidence the boy had run out into traffic.

Under Colorado law, a pedestrian in a crosswalk has the right of way – regardless of whether there is a signal. But in this case, it may well have been the signal that caused the problem. Did the driver think, given there is a signal, that if the lights were not flashing, he could proceed? Did the boy think that if he hurried he could cross under the protection of the signal that had been triggered by an earlier pedestrian?

The latter is more likely. Signals can instill a sense of confidence in pedestrians that may not be justified, particularly if the signals themselves are unfamiliar to drivers.

Mixing cars and pedestrians is inherently dangerous. Adding an element of uncertainty by asking drivers to figure out unusual signals only adds to the risk. CDOT needs a better approach.

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